Update from Italy: Month 2 of Quarantine

Photo by Ani Kolleshi on Unsplash

Starting yesterday, face masks are obligatory in Tuscany when in public spaces. The municipal government dropped off sacks of them with instructions for each family. No official announcement yet on the next extension, but we all expect it. Jason and I talked over lunch, musing how long can this go on? Broad tests in Tuscany of asymptomatic groups suggest just 5% of the population is carrying the second (and most important) of the two C19 antibodies, meaning millions of people are still susceptible. We wonder if extra care will be taken for the most vulnerable. Groceries are getting more expensive and the lines are getting longer. Supply chains must be getting strained, here in the fifth week of a broad, very restrictive lockdown. We wonder how long Italy can remain frozen in time, even as we adjust to our new normal.

From our apartment cloister, the city sighs, invisible to us. Minimal movement takes place in its quiet streets, the almost-empty buses. The parks are deserted and cordoned off, the restaurants and bars and cafés are all shuttered. Out of sight, out of mind.

Our world has become these one hundred and forty square meters, with its six interior windows and three skylights. It has become my convent, I the tertiary. I treasure my brief daily outings in the cloister garden, crammed with azaleas in bloom, lemon and orange trees heavy with fruit, the green dome of the synagogue looming over the stone wall at the back of the plot. The air fills with the church bells announcing midday.

Fear is invisible, but leaves tracks in the jittery heart, the clenched jaw. She shifts in the seat to find a calmer pose. Anxiety vibrates and is felt, but is not seen. She no longer circulates in the city, becoming invisible to those who used to greet her each day along her circuit.

The pathogens roam freely, cloaked in microscopic invisibility, but like fear and anxiety, they trail their deeply felt and visible traces across families and towns, countries and populations. And yet that novel virus finds its kin in the wild yeast I am growing every day on the grey marble counter. The starter teems with spores taking hold, blowing bubbles; I cannot see them. I can only read the signs of their existence. One shrinks and takes and life, the other expands and gives life.

Love is invisible, but love is felt, every day, in care and reassurance.

Leadership feels invisible. It’s a catch-up game. No one has confronted an issue like this in the lifetime, except for maybe a few Wise Ones, and the Queen, may God save her. Solutions, both political and medical, fail to materialize in time. Patience is invisible, but felt. We will come to cross this bridge; the date on which we begin to do so is unseen. 

Visibility is in the eye of the beholder. Some see what many cannot see. A handful see what escapes most. All things, seen and unseen. Practice seeing, that the portion of things invisible may shrink, and your knowledge, your seeing them, will bring them into the light for many. If you are able to see it, tell it.

Florentine Quarantine: Thus Begins the Second Month

Quarantine boule, I am making YOU this weekend.
Photo by Jørgen Håland on Unsplash

Today is the first day of the second month in the Italian nationally-decreed shutdown. I keep an eye on a calendar hanging from a nail on our laundry room door; ironically, it is from l’Erbolario, one of my favorite Italian shops, full of natural, Italian-informed fragrance, and features woodland and nature scenes, which provide a nice reminder of Life Before, back when we could go Outdoors.

Last night, I asked Jason if he ever read “All Summer in a Day” in school. No, he said, then wait, tell me more. I recounted what I remembered of it. We read it in the seventh grade, when I was twelve. Bradbury. Oh yeah, he said, the memory of it dawning across his face. We did read that. Going outside now feels a little like those kids in school on Venus. Being inside, on the other hand, feels a little like those people on the spaceship in “Wall*E,” where the ship announcer says “you may have noticed a slight reduction in bone density while on board” and the x-rays show nubbins of bone where skeletons used to join bone to bone. We need earthy tasks to connect us to ourselves since we are getting a lot less time outdoors, and when we do make it outside, it is starting to feel … unnatural. Unusual. I miss having a garden patch like I had in Seattle. I love getting my hands dirty and tending a process with patience.

So, after days of idle research, and repeat apologies from Jason that yeast is sold out across the city and probably the planet, I pulled the plug and started my own lievito madre, a starter of wild yeast grown with only flour and water captured from the air and nurtured in a pungent bucket. I began with starter instructions from Kitchn, but then was passed a link for the King Arthur site Little Spoon Farm, which was more thorough. There also seems to be a lot of Jewish baking literature from kosher kitchens about wild yeast, which was interesting.

Because the first site I read was a kosher baking site that strongly recommended using any starter discard to make cinnamon buns, I knew my starter was Jewish and so named him first Isidore, then Isadora, when I quickly realized she was female, destined to be a farinaceous Gaia. I measured out the water and flour and put them in the bucket. Our apartment is drafty and I was worried I would not find a safe place for Izzy. I tried atop a slightly warm radiator, but that was too warm. Nothing really happened. I moved Izzy to the corner of the bathroom, high atop another radiator. Still too high, and on Saturday morning a thin brown layer of “hooch” covered the flour. Boy did it reek. It was not looking right at all, but some ferment was obviously happening. Still, Izzy was not mixing up right. I consulted my instructions again. I realized that Izzy needed to breathe, so covered her with a paper towel, secured with a large rubberband. I moved her away from the warm radiators and placed her as a centerpiece on our massive dining room table. Izzy’s pleasure was immediately apparent, and she became bubbly and happy on the next overnight (this was when I started calling her Izzy, since it was clear she planned to stick around). When I stirred her, the sponge and bubble and lightness was apparent. I cannot tell you how satisfying this is.

Some additional research revealed that Izzy’s bucket is best changed each day (the metaphor used was “like cleaning a horse stall”) and so I started doing that yesterday. I plan to put Izzy to work toward the end of this week, on schiacciata (a kind of simple foccaccia) and tortillas (on request from Vic, because we have some fantastic burrito hacks on old Quarantine Farm). If Izzy is good to go, she’s going into the fridge for weekly feedings, and I will probably use the preferent (the proofed dough) on a weekly or semiweekly basis. Definitely for my weekly boule, which I made for over a decade in the US, and which was our lunchtime staple with Dijon mustard, sliced cheese, ham, and a panini press, which I did ship here in 2016 – this seemed idiotic at the time (“Why did I ship myself a ten-pound cast-iron kitchen implement when we’re moving to a country that invented this thing!?”), but we have actually used it a ton. I think it was Jason’s anniversary gift from me for the iron anniversary (6th), so that must have been in 2012. In any case, it’s red-enamel cast iron, both grill and press, now stained and well-used and -seasoned, and we love it.

This is all great news down on the old Quarantine Farm, since Farm Wife must have yeast for baking, and Miss Anxiety can now check on the calm progress of her new friend and meditation instructor, Izzy. Apparently a particular “mother” has been in continuous perpetual use in San Francisco since 1849, so that’s the kind of thrift, prep, and respect for history that Farm Wife can really relate to. More news to come as Izzy progresses.

Update from Italy: Florentine Quarantine (Day 28)

Venus shines bright. Photo by Leo LeBlanc on Unsplash

I promised some of my readers that today I would write about Marriage and Parenting in Quarantine. If you want to hear about my wild yeast starter Isadora, it’ll go up tomorrow.

A month ago this evening, Italy broke the news: everyone was locking down. Tutti! came the decree. The entire country, all nonni, genitori, bambini, e famiglie. Tutta l’Italia! At the time we were feeling the vertigo from the velocity of that slide down the slippery slope, chased by contagion, traumatized by news, entering house arrest for humanity.

We’ve moved through the stages of grief for a life left behind (for now? forever?): denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Four weeks on, we are finding some equilibrium. Over lunch this past Saturday, Jason looked out up and out the window, laughing helplessly but good-naturedly. “I’m getting used to this,” he exclaimed. “I mean, where am I going to go? Where do I want to go? Where could we even go right now?”

Before the coronavirus, I thought my life was destined to be lived at a barely-manageable, breakneck pace, no matter my city or country, job or passport, parental status. Even my attempts to adjust and dial down proved inconsequential. Maybe just a little less striving. Maybe an hour less of work a day. Just try to care a little less. I never even wanted to lean in. My version of getting by was still pretty honors roll. But it was almost impossible to care incrementally less. I could not cast off the heavy yoke of guilt. For each item I took out of my basket of expectations, for each item I deleted from my calendar, even changing jobs last fall and finding something more local, more flexible – I always seemed to find Her Honor waiting on the bench in her robes, ready to judge the defendant for failing to measure up. I feared being labelled unsuccessful. Oh, there are so many reasons for this – all of them dissected in years of therapy, none of them good, but the fears always seem to swarm under stress. 

I’ll tell you what’s amazing, nestled in and holed up in our apartment now for more than four weeks with my husband and our two small children, what is truly amazing is that I love this time. Farm Wife and Miss Anxiety are working well together. My family has found a better rhythm, a more authentic way of being together; we are all more patient, more aware of others’ worry, hunger, fatigue, joy. 

In February, when the storm clouds were just gathering on the horizon (I still cannot believe that Italy went down #2 in this terrible viral shooting gallery), I would have half-joked but genuinely feared that being in lockdown with my family would result in frustration, anger, meltdown. But the opposite has in fact happened. Even as we move together through these global events, the pandemic unfolding, life ground to a halt, our hearts opened wide even as we bid goodbye, possibly forever, to life as we knew it. 

Yet now I know how well Vic and El play together, how sweet he is to her, making treasure hunts even as she cannot yet read or write, how well they make up when they get in the odd argument, trembling lips and each of their little hearts full of honesty and tears. How they always notice Venus as it sets from our western window. How grateful they are for pasta al pesto and grilled cheese. What a change it is for my husband to check in with me emotionally each day instead of just gritting his teeth through work and expat life, to have him with us more in mind and body. How the worry mouse seems to gnaw less in the corner of my mind. How events beyond my control have forced my hand, and look ma, no hands. I’m relinquishing control. It took a pandemic to teach me, but I’m pretty sure I’m closer on this Square One, here, today.

Update from Italy: Miss Anxiety and Farm Wife

Miss Anxiety and Farm Wife head home in the evening after a full day’s work on the old Quarantine Farm.
Photo by Marcel McCarthy on Unsplash

What are your character strengths? How can you use these strengths in your current situation?

I’ve fortunately had plenty of time in enforced quarantine to consider this very question. (Currently on Day 25 of 35.) Over the past six weeks or so, I have named some of these qualities and attributed them to discrete characters, so that I might recognize them when they step forward, or call them forth as needed.

Meet Miss Anxiety. She is young at heart yet world-weary, very emotionally in touch, but not well regulated. She has a lot of energy that often spirals out of control into possibilities and worry and imagination and foregone conclusions that have no basis in reality. However, Miss Anxiety is creative, and when she is not skating the knife edge of worry, she is very empathic, and checks in with everyone. She wants to know everyone’s stories, how they are doing, both to provide succor as well as benchmark her own anxiety (normal) and wine intake (actually seems moderate, compared to many). Miss Anxiety needs a lot of guidance and a firm managerial hand. Left to her own devices, she fritters away the day in worry, kinetic frustration, and helplessness; however, she is quick to identify any invisible peers out here on Anxiety Island.

Now comes Farm Wife, who derives from my Inner Finn. Farm Wife demonstrates an enviable industriousness, smoothly moving through a litany of chores to keep a quarantined family afloat: laundry, dishes, meals, showers and baths, folding and putting away clothes; mending, repairing, making yeast, improvising recipes she finds online. When her chores pause, she paints with the children or makes tiny sweaters out of worn ribbed red tights for her vintage Pooh Bear. (Miss Anxiety loves these brief pauses in the chore list.) She whips up pantry crumb cakes, cast-iron skillet tarte tatin, tortillas frescas de harina, pancakes, French crepes, lentil soup.

Farm Wife loves to manage Miss Anxiety. She can put her right to work on a list of chores, and no need to provide feedback, thank you very much. This is fine as Miss Anxiety actually does not want to be a leader. She wants to be managed so she does not have to try to figure out how to do other important things, like breathe normally. When Farm Wife is in charge of the day, much gets done, everything runs smoothly, Farm Wife and Miss Anxiety fall into an easy accord of employment. Miss Anxiety is grateful for the leadership. Farm Wife likes Miss Anxiety’s energy and willingness to take direction. Perhaps Miss Anxiety’s best trait is her sense of humour, when she calms down a bit. Farm Wife’s humour tends to be earthy and abrupt; Miss Anxiety notices things that Farm Wife does not see, since her nose is always down on her list of chores for the day.

Together, Miss Anxiety and Farm Wife are a good team. Prior to the quarantine, I never would have put them together on any project, but their skills and talents are genuinely complimentary. I think they seem to like one another more too, which was not the case before the quarantine; back then, they barely spoke. But now they have to be together all the time, and they are both changing and adjusting as a result.

Do you have any characters in quarantine? Have you noticed anyone materializing in the mist to help you get through these days; conversely, any problem students who are starting to shine in adversity? I’d love to hear.

Update from Italy: Stats and Insights

Hop, turn, repeat.
Repeat repeat.
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

24 of 35 days in quarantine in a 4 br, 2 ba apt with little kids.

New quarantine end date moved to April 13 by the Italian government so that NO ONE is confused about Easter Sunday.

760 Italians lost today due to covid.

4,668 new positive covid cases in Italy.

First day since Saturday we’ve been outside with the kids.

Noting a date’s alignment (between Merovingian and Carolingian) with our front door’s keypad code.

5 kilos of flour purchased wholesale from a restaurant distributor working hard to stay afloat. Also, countless, chicken sticks, french fries, and passata al pomodoro.

1 dear friend admitted locally with symptoms.

10 pages edited in legal English and since published online re: business contracts, force majeure, and the pandemic.

1 online ballot created for vestry elections.

3 years I have been vestry secretary / clerk. I suppose the title was change to avoid confusion with te parish secretary position.

1 online reading of the palm Sunday Passion recorded for use on Palm Sunday at 10:30 AM.

Infinite loads of laundry.

240 g of lentils added to today’s soup (sausage, onions, that damn curly kale that might as well be an old leather shoe, even with lemon juice).

Infinite loads of dishes.

2 units of caffeine per day

Glad I never took up smoking or otherwise fell into any other addictions, red wine aside. And that’s with dinner. Ok nightcaps most nights.

0 yeast. Either we find some at the market tomorrow or I am making a mother.

Endless patience for this. We can do this.